Monday, February 12, 2018

Musings From the Weekend: Make NASCAR's Second Division a Road Course Series

Alex Bowman made you forget about... uh... what's his name... you know who I am talking about, by winning pole position for the Daytona 500. Brad Keselowski won the Clash so that's something. IndyCar tested at Phoenix and it feels like the series is going to get it wrong for a third consecutive year, there will be another less than stellar race at Phoenix and that will end IndyCar's brief return to the one-mile oval many clamored for. The Toyota Racing Series had a surprise champion considering he won only one race all season and had nine podium finishes and another driver won over a third of the races and stood on the podium 12 times out of a possible 15 podium finishes. In other news, the Supercross season could be turning into the slowest runaway ever seen. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Make NASCAR's Second Division a Road Course Series
Last week, I previewed the NASCAR Cup season and the Daytona 500 and this will partly be a preview of NASCAR's second division. Why would I spend the time previewing a series most have disgust for how it is run? Because I actually think it will be moderately exciting in 2018.

Because of the way the Chase works each driver gets two-dozen opportunities to get a win, just one, and a place in the battle for the championship. The format allows someone like Jeremy Clements to have a shot at the title even if he really doesn't have a prayer. Clements aside, the Grand National Series has plenty of drivers that can win a race and with restrictions on Cup drivers moonlighting becoming stricter I think there could be six drivers that make the Chase via victory. JR Motorsports have three drivers alone that could win a race in Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Tyler Reddick. Daniel Hemric ended 2017 strong, as did Cole Custer and I think both could win. Then you have Christopher Bell who is taking a step up after winning the Truck title and he won in the second division last year in his fifth career start. Austin Cindric is piecemealing a full season between Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing. Ryan Truex replaces Blake Koch at Kaulig Racing. Ryan Reed could win a race at a restrictor plate track. Matt Tifft is there and there is still the outside chance someone like Clements, Michael Annett, Kaz Grala or Spencer Gallagher winning a race at an unlikely venue, like a road course.

That brings me to something on my mind back in August when this series once again held a pair of chaotic but enthralling races at Mid-Ohio and Road America. This series should step away from the grind of nearly three-dozen races from February to November and run a condensed season only of road course races. For starters, it would bring NASCAR to markets that do not have races. It would also increase the potential talent pool for NASCAR. All of a sudden a young driver from Europe or America who can't breakthrough single-seaters not only has sports cars to fall back on and with the right amount of funding could take a mid-pack team to the front.

Consider some of the results we have seen in recent years with road course ringers entering the races at Mid-Ohio and Road America and the teams these drivers were with: You had Jeremy Clements' victory at Road America. James Davison finished fourth at Mid-Ohio with next to no time in the car even if it was Joe Gibbs Racing. Andy Lally finished behind Davison driving for SS-Green Light Racing a year after he finished seventh driving for Mario Gosselin's team and he finished seventh for SS-Green Light at Road America in 2014. Kevin O'Connell finished third at Road America in 2014 driving for Rick Ware Racing.

The three road course races run in August by NASCAR second division have become something fans look forward to and in some ways it is what people want NASCAR to be, a place where the little teams with five full-time employees and a white-knuckled driver behind the wheel can beat the multi-million dollar operations with starched white shirts.

There are things I don't like about NASCAR road course races (the pace, the gamesmanship on the racetrack, the lack of a time limit) but these are races you have to tune in for because for three tracks being the same discipline you are likely going to get three different results. Watkins Glen has typically run as you would predict on paper because it is held with a Cup race and Cup guys run it but Mid-Ohio and Road America rarely produce the same race. Amazingly, this series has had at least three road course races in all but one season since 2007 and in that time only twice has a driver won multiple road course races with Kevin Harvick doing it in 2007 and A.J. Allmendinger doing it in 2013. Since road courses returned to NASCAR's second division in 2005, there have been 25 winners in 36 road course races. Five different countries were represented by those 25 drivers and of those 25 winners, 11 of them had their first career victory in the series come on a road course. The driver with the most road course victories in that time was Marcos Ambrose, who won five times.

Going to only road courses would mean cutting back on the schedule and it could be a case where less is more. Instead of having teams putting a half dozen drivers in one car to make a full season work, a schedule half the length could make it manageable for a one driver to find the funding to run a full season.

A road course-only series would not mean going away from running races on Cup weekends and it could allow for more ovals to use the roval configurations that do not get much use.

In my mind, the season would have begun this weekend at Daytona and it fact it would begin on Saturday night. If the Clash isn't going to be Saturday night then why not have the second division kick off the season with a night race on the 3.56-mile road course at Daytona? Then the teams would get a month off before heading to another roval, Fontana in March. Another month off would follow before two consecutive weeks of racing and both away from Cup events. While the Cup series is at Bristol this series could run Saturday afternoon at Road Atlanta and eight days later, the day after NASCAR runs at Richmond, Virginia International Raceway could host a Sunday afternoon race.

The series could head to Austin in mid-May the day after Cup runs at Kansas on a Saturday night and the Sunday after the All-Star Race this series could be up at Mosport on Victoria Day Weekend and run a doubleheader with the NASCAR Pinty's Series. The next race would not be until June and it would be the first race on a Cup weekend since March with a race Saturday afternoon of the Pocono weekend. After two weeks off, the series would join Cup at Sonoma before reviving the Paul Revere 250 at Daytona on the Friday night before the 400-mile oval race.

Wouldn't it sound nice if two weeks later this series joined IMSA's GTLM and GTD divisions at Lime Rock Park for a doubleheader that featured a sports car race followed by a stock car race? After that we would get into the August schedule as it is already presented with Watkins Glen leading off followed by Mid-Ohio and Road America.

The final race of summer would be on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course the Saturday before the Cup race. The roval race at Charlotte would go on as planned for late September but the next race would not be until mid-October and Kansas would host the penultimate round of the season with another month off until the season finale on a Saturday at Homestead, capping off a 17-race season.

It would definitely be a shock to the system. There would be a lot of down time but the budgets would be slashed mightily. Majority of the season would be run with Cup races but it would allow the series to visit Road Atlanta, VIR, Austin, Mosport and Lime Rock Park, tracks that don't have NASCAR national touring series races as of now. The schedule would be close to evenly split with rovals outnumbering natural-terrain road courses nine to eight but it would allow NASCAR to still have these races pair with Cup events while going to some of the best tracks the United States has to offer.

Oh a man can dream and maybe in this time when it is harder to gardener interest from the masses and people are turning elsewhere maybe it is a dream, a crazy one at that to turn it around.

Champion From the Weekend

Robert Shwartzman clinched the Toyota Racing Series championship with finishes of second, fourth and second at Circuit Chris Amon.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about what happened at Daytona and Robert Shwartzman but did you know...

Richard Verschoor won the first and third races of the Toyota Racing Series New Zealand Grand Prix from Circuit Chris Amon. Brendon Leitch won the second race of the weekend.

Jason Anderson won the Supercross race from San Diego, his second consecutive victory and third of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
The 60th Daytona 500 but before that two meaningless 150-mile grid setting races, a Truck race the Grand National Series race.
Supercross returns to Texas but will be in Arlington.
The World Rally Championship takes a dip in the snow at Rally Sweden.